Analysis and Commentary on Constitutional Law

The Big 4-0: Title IX Puts a Fourth Decade Under Its Belt

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman, and Justia guest columnist and U. Pittsburgh law professor Deborah Brake comment on the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the federal civil rights statute that bans sex discrimination in federally-funded education programs. Grossman and Brake focus on the area in which Title IX has had its biggest impact, athletics, and explain its impact on college women’s and high school girls’ opportunities in sports. They reveal the secrets of Title IX’s success, including its refusal to take current, status quo levels of girls’ and women’s interest in sports as fixed or natural and thus to cap opportunities at current levels. Grossman and Brake also comment on Title IX’s recent history, criticizing the George W. Bush Administration for undermining the law, and praising the Obama Administration for properly enforcing it. Finally, they describe the stumbling blocks that still remain when it comes to full Title IX enforcement.

Under What Circumstances Can a State Compel a Pharmacy to Provide “Morning After” Drugs Against the Religious Objections of Pharmacists? A Case From Washington State Illustrates Modern Free Exercise Doctrines and Dilemmas

Justia columnist Vikram David Amar and Justia guest columnist Alan Brownstein, both U.C., Davis law professors, comment on a recent Washington State controversy that raises the issue whether a pharmacy must provide the emergency contraceptive known as “Plan B” if the pharmacy’s owner objects to doing so, based on his or her own religious beliefs. (Such pharmacy owners believe that life begins at conception, meaning fertilization; Plan B prevents the implantation of a fertilized egg.) Amar and Brownstein note that the case is important and interesting not just in itself, but also because it illustrates many of the unanswered questions that concern the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. The federal judge who heard the case ruled in favor of the pharmacy owners, but was he right to do so? Amar and Brownstein consider the arguments on both sides, focusing especially on the Supreme Court case of Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah, in which a church sought to sacrifice animals in its rituals even though doing so was against the law. They also consider variations of the fact pattern in the Washington State case itself, and consider whether they might yield different results.

Social Security and the Economy: The President and Congress Should Be Happy That Social Security Is Not Part of the Problem, and They Should Leave It Alone

George Washington law professor and economist Neil Buchanan argues that the current debate about Social Security is dangerously misleading in several ways. Buchanan faults both parties for using inaccurate rhetoric: President Obama, he says, must stop acting as if Social Security is in peril, and both the President and Congress must stop using Social Security as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Republicans. In turn, and most importantly, Buchanan argues, Republicans must stop misrepresenting Social Security’s current financial situation as being dire, when that really is not the case. The best approach now, he argues, is to leave Social Security alone and focus on improving the economy. Buchanan also calls for an end to misleading estimates regarding in what year Social Security will be “bankrupt,” as they only scare and mislead the public. Finally, too, he warns that calls to “Act now to save Social Security” are often plans to weaken Social Security, in disguise.

How Rulings of the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt Hold Lessons for Emerging Democracies, and for Our Own

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on what emerging democracies, and even America’s own long-established democracy, can learn from two recent rulings from the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt. As Dorf explains, the rulings, and the political context in which they arose, can teach us much about courts’ role in promoting democracy. He notes that the world has decisively opted for constitutional review, and the protection of individual rights, which are now a standard feature of established democracies around the globe. Dorf notes, however, that constitutional courts in emerging democracies not only must worry about the tyranny of the majority and the protection of individual rights, but must also be concerned that the government will fall prey to a military coup. In addition to commenting on Egypt’s situation, Dorf also cites Pakistan as another instructive example of the role of courts.

A Supreme Court Ruling on Jurisdiction Has Potential Implications for the Law Regarding Drone Strikes

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf discusses the Supreme Court’s decision in Elgin v. Dep’t of Commerce, which was just recently handed down. Dorf argues that the opinion, though not one of Term’s blockbusters, is still quite significant. That is, in part, because the decision may have implications for the U.S.’s controversial practice of using drone strikes to kill persons deemed to be U.S. enemies—including even U.S. citizens who are abroad. Moreover, Dorf notes that Elgin may have implications for the question whether the Obama Administration has been on firm legal ground when it has declined to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). In addition to these more practical implications of Elgin, Dorf contends that the decision may also be significant as a matter of constitutional theory regarding the respective roles of each of the branches of government.

Two More Nails in DOMA’s Coffin: Courts Invalidate Federal Law’s Rejection of Same-Sex Marriage

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on two recent rulings that invalidate applications of a federal law—the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)—purporting to reject same-sex marriages. One ruling resolves a set of consolidated cases, and was issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. That ruling is entitled Commonwealth v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The other ruling is Windsor v. U.S., a decision from a New York-based federal district court. After providing background on DOMA, Grossman analyzes the claims that were put forth in the cases that led to the two recent decisions, and argues that both courts were right to invalidate the applications of DOMA that were before them. She also discusses three U.S. Supreme Court precedents that are relevant to these issues.

A Tale of Two Child Sex Abuse Trials Involving Two Iconic Pennsylvania Institutions: Penn State and the Philadelphia Roman Catholic Archdiocese

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on two child-sex-abuse trials related to two iconic Pennsylvania institutions: Penn State and the Philadelphia Roman Catholic Archdiocese. The upcoming Penn State-related trial arises out of widely reported allegations of child sex abuse by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who served under Joe Paterno. The defendant in the ongoing trial relating to the Philadelphia Archdiocese is Monsignor William Lynn, who is charged with conspiracy and child endangerment. Hamilton’s report today comes after hearing testimony in the Lynn case. In addition to commenting on these two cases themselves, Hamilton makes a strong suggestion that Philadephia, home of both of the institutions involved in the scandals, should review its laws and practices regarding to allegations of child sex abuse, and should work toward the state’s now becoming a model when it comes to preventing and punishing child sex abuse.

Obamacare and the Misguided Criticism of “Liberal Law Professors” Who Defend It

Justia columnist and U.C. Davis law professor Vikram Amar takes issue with Stanford law professor Michael McConnell’s critique of the arguments of liberal law professors who defend the constitutionality of Obamacare. In a recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, McConnell took aim at such professors. In particular, McConnell argued that liberal law professors have failed to make “actual legal arguments, based on text, history, structure and precedent” to support Obamacare. Moreover, McConnell claimed that liberal law professors’ definition of judicial activism is one-sided—a charge that they only believe to be true when it applies to the conservative Justices. Amar counters McConnell’s arguments on both of these points, providing a very specific description of the constitutional-law basis for their view that Obamacare is constitutional.

Some Reflections on the Texas Pre-Abortion Ultrasound Law, a Year After Its Passage: Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In the second in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb continues her analysis of the constitutionality of the Texas law, enacted about a year ago, requiring abortion providers to (1) perform an ultrasound on a patient seeking an abortion; (2) expose the patient to the resulting visual ultrasound image, as well as any extant fetal heart sounds; and (3) provide an explanation of the embryo or fetus as pictured on the screen. Here, in Part Two, Colb continues to address the important question whether a law mandating ultrasounds, as the Texas law does, imposes a burden on women that is qualitatively different from the burdens that the U.S. Supreme Court has already approved in the context of abortion, which express a pro-childbirth value judgment. Colb also analyzes the abortion-related laws that the Court has struck down, and explains why. Moreover, she considers the relevance, here, of cases regarding unwanted speech and targeted picketing. Finally, Colb parallels the law with another context in which disturbing images may be shown, and if they are, the showing can be controversial: Animal Rights classes.

How to Better Fight Cyberbullying: Finding Fixes for the Internet Protection Act

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on a new proposed New York statute, the Internet Protection Act, which would provide a remedy for those who are the targets of anonymous Internet attacks—including the victims of cyberbullies, and businesses harmed by competitors’ fake reviews. Dean notes that the Act has drawn much criticism, but he argues that the focus of comments on the Act should not be to attack the Act, but rather to offer constructive criticism as to how the Act can be made consistent with the First Amendment. Dean summarizes the First Amendment arguments that have been raised regarding the Act; cites two key Supreme Court anonymous speech cases; notes that it is often possible to unmask cyberbullies without breaking the law, but it takes time and money to do so; and contends that a constitutional way to address cyberbullying would be through a law allowing the unmasking of the perpetrators of Internet harassment, and the issuance of a protective order against them. Even the deterrent effect of such a law, Dean predicts, could be powerful.

Notre Dame Sues the Federal Government in Order to Avoid Providing Reproductive Services to Its Female Students and Employees

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on Notre Dame University’s and other Roman Catholic organizations’ recent suit against the federal government over federal executive regulations, promulgated through the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”), that require the University and the other organizations to include contraception, abortion, and sterilization in their healthcare plans. Hamilton focuses, in particular, on the federal court complaint filed by Notre Dame and the other plaintiffs, and the arguments they have made. Hamilton also describes a series of Supreme Court precedents in which various religious groups have failed to get exemptions from generally applicable laws, and argues that these precedents do not bode well for the plaintiffs’ success in this court challenge. Hamilton also discusses the role the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) plays in the lawsuit.

Some Reflections on the Texas Pre-Abortion Ultrasound Law, a Year After Its Passage: Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In the first in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb considers the constitutionality of the Texas law, enacted about a year ago, requiring abortion providers to (1) perform an ultrasound on a patient seeking an abortion; (2) expose the patient to the resulting visual ultrasound image, as well as any extant fetal heart sounds; and (3) provide an explanation of the embryo or fetus as pictured on the screen. Colb focuses especially on the question whether a law mandating ultrasounds, as the Texas law does, imposes a burden on women that is qualitatively different from the burdens that the U.S. Supreme Court has already approved in the context of abortion, which express a pro-childbirth value judgment.

The Citizens United Case and Jeffrey Toobin’s Account of it in The New Yorker: An Interesting Story but an Incomplete Argument

Justia columnist and U.C. Davis law professor Vikram Amar comments on legal journalist Jeffrey Toobin’s recent article in The New Yorker regarding the highly controversial Citizens United case, holding that not just persons, but also corporations, have a First Amendment right to spend money to advocate for or against candidates for election. Amar respectfully raises questions about Toobin’s account of the case and how it was decided by the Court. In particular, he focuses on whether this was the rare case in which oral argument actually mattered to the case's outcome, as Toobin suggests.

A Federal Judge Draws the Right Line in Interpreting a Utah Law Regarding Web Content That Is Deemed Harmful to Minors

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on a recent First Amendment/Internet law ruling from a Utah-based federal judge. As Ramasastry explains, the ruling limited the scope of a a Utah law that (1) criminalized knowingly or intentionally disseminating harmful content to minors over the Internet, and (2) required website operators to tag or label such content in such a way that the tags or labels can be picked up by search engines. Ramasastry argues that the court struck the right balance by upholding but clarifying the first part of the law, and striking down the second part on First Amendment grounds. When it comes to screening content, she adds, the best solution is not a legal one. The better solution is, she argues, for parents to select screening software if they so choose; and for parents to have a serious talk with their kids to prepare them to deal psychologically with the kind of explicit material that they are likely to see, one way or another, even if parents do install screening software on all home computers.

Denying Clemency for Draconian Sentencing Based on Bad Information: The Clarence Aaron Case

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on a criminal case in which he argues that a deeply unjust sentence was handed down. Dean contends that it is high time for presidential clemency for the prisoner, Clarence Aaron, especially as the record shows that the Pardon Attorney gave President George W. Bush’s staff inaccurate and incomplete information in the case. As Dean explains, drawing on reporting by The Washington Post and ProPublica, Aaron—a 23-year-old first-time offender at the time of his arrest—was convicted for his role in abetting a non-violent drug deal. Dean notes that other participants in the deal had made careers in the drug business, and received light sentences in exchange for pointing the finger at Aaron, who received three life sentences. Their testimony has, since then, been shown and admitted to be false, yet Aaron still languishes in jail. Especially now that Aaron has the support of the relevant U.S. Attorney, Deborah Rhodes, and the sentencing judge, Dean contends that it is high time that Aaron receives a pardon.

The Truth About the Philadelphia Archdiocese, Child Sex Abuse by Its Priests, and Its Latest Missteps

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on recent events regarding the Philadelphia Archdiocese and clergy child sex abuse. She praises former Philadelphia D.A. Lynne Abraham and current Philadelphia D.A. Seth Williams for their courage and hard work in pursuing the matter, and establishing not only crimes, but also a cover-up. Hamilton notes that the trial of Msgr. William Lynn, who is charged with suppressing the identities of priest perpetrators, marks the first time a member of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy has been put on trial. Despite Pennsylvania’s short statute of limitations for child sex abuse, Hamilton explains, the prosecutors still found a way to make their case—finding two victims whose claims still fit within the statute of limitations, and successfully admitting evidence about 22 other victims whose claims are time-barred at trial. Hamilton faults the Philadelphia Archdiocese not just for the underlying crimes that are alleged, but also for the deficits of its own private investigation, which she argues has re-victimized the victims, given the insensitive way in which it has been conducted.

Iowa Passes an “Ag-gag” Law: The Power and Limits of Free Speech

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on “ag-gag” laws, which prohibit people from gaining entry into, or employment in, an agricultural production facility, including an animal agriculture facility, under false pretenses. Colb notes that Iowa recently passed such a law, and that North Dakota, Montana, and Kansas also have such laws. Colb argues that the laws are aimed at concealing the true facts about how animals are treated in such facilities, because of the fear that if consumers knew the truth of the cruelty that is perpetrated there, they might change their eating habits. Supporters of that view see those who enter these facilities knowing they will convey information about them to the outside world as undercover reporters and whistleblowers, while the animal industries see them merely as trespassers. Colb details ways in which consumers are misled or misinformed about animal agriculture, suggesting that there is a need for undercover reportage so that the truth can be known. For instance, she explains how milk production entails slaughter, contrary to popular opinion, and not just on factory farms. Colb questions, though, whether consumers really want to know a truth that could complicate their lives with new ethical questions leading to possible dietary changes, and whether if consumers do learn that truth, they will really change their behavior. Colb also examines why humans may not feel empathy for animals, citing the coping strategies that often accompany humans’ acceptance of systematic violence, including violence toward other humans.

Another Frontier: Connecticut’s High Court Recognizes a Cause of Action for Sexual-Orientation Harassment in the Workplace

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on a recent important decision from the Connecticut Supreme Court. As Grossman explains, the case arose when a manufacturing company failed to take action to stop the ceaseless name-calling that the plaintiff endured in his workplace regarding his sexual orientation. Even worse than the slurs themselves, some of the plaintiff’s tormentors would say the slurs while standing right behind the plaintiff while he was operating heavy machinery. Grossman begins by sketching the legal landscape (federal and state) regarding sexual orientation discrimination, and then goes on to focus on the law of Connecticut, where the employer was located, and the result the Connecticut Supreme Court reached in the case. Grossman also questions why the employer took the case all the way up to Connecticut’s high court when the illegality of the acts involved was quite clear.

Does the First Amendment Provide Protection for Facebook “Likes”? A Federal Judge Wrongly Says No

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent decision from an Eastern District of Virginia federal judge, who effectively held that the use of the “Like” icon on Facebook is not protected by the First Amendment. The case arose when the employees of a sheriff who was up for re-election decided to “Like” his opponent’s Facebook page. Once the sheriff was re-elected, he fired those employees (as well as others). But the fired employees who had used the “Like” icon sued, arguing that the sheriff had illegally fired them for the exercise of their First Amendment rights. Hilden takes issue with both the judge’s decision to rule against the fired employees, and his approach to the case, which caused him to refuse to interpret what the Facebook “Likes” meant. Citing Supreme Court precedent, Hilden notes that the High Court has often protected and interpreted symbolic speech, and that the Court, in the recent case of Morse v. Frederick, has interpreted the meaning of ambiguous speech as well. She thus concludes that the judge should have both interpreted the “Likes,” and also held that they were First Amendment-protected.

What Does the Pew Research Center’s Recent Survey Showing an Historically Low Favorability Rating of the Supreme Court Tell Us?

Justia columnist and U.C. Davis law professor Vikram Amar comments on the results of a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, regarding the percentage of adult Americans who hold a favorable view of the Supreme Court. Amar notes that the current percentage is 52%, a 25-year low. After describing the details of the Pew Survey, Amar considers the possible reasons for this low rating, suggesting that factors that may play a role include (1) The perception that the Court is no better than Congress (which gets low favorability ratings and is, obviously, partisan); (2) The impressions of the Justices that have been conveyed by some recent confirmation processes, particularly when nominees have made embarrassing gaffes that were ceaselessly repeated in the media, or have constantly avoided questions about the law; and (3) Republicans’ displeasure with the Court on social-issues cases, despite the Court’s conservative track record in its cases generally—and in certain blockbuster cases—over the last dozen years, in combination with what seems to be the advent of a more radicalized Republican Party.

Meet our Columnists

Vikram David Amar
Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois Co... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a Professor of Law at The George Washington U... more

Sherry F. Colb
Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is the C.S. Wong Professor of Law at Cornell University. Colb teaches courses in con... more

John Dean
John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973. Befo... more

Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He has w... more

Joanna L. Grossman
Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School of L... more

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

MARCI A. HAMILTON is the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program Professor of Practice, and Fox Family Pavi... more

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of Record... more

Anita Ramasastry
Anita Ramasastry

Anita Ramasastry is the UW Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of... more

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

Lesley Wexler is a Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. Immediately prior... more